A decision on opening negotiations on membership will have to be agreed upon by all member states, and Hungary has already indicated it plans to cause problems for Ukraine.  

While Budapest’s position is most likely aimed at winning concessions on other contentious issues, rather than blocking Ukraine’s accession point blank, the negotiations promise to be difficult. Kyiv will need every bit of support it can get from other EU capitals.  

In view of this, it is worth examining what analysts in the Nordics and Baltics say about the challenges and opportunities of EU enlargement, and what they think will make it work. 

The Baltic states joined the EU almost 20 years ago, under vastly different geopolitical conditions, but a large part of their accession experience remains relevant as it included far-reaching reforms and institutional transformation.  

That is why an analysis of EU economic assistance to Ukraine, published by the Eastern Europe Studies Centre (Lithuania) jointly with the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation (Ukraine), should be taken seriously.  

While the amount of external assistance to Ukraine during the first year of war has been unprecedented, the report found it lacked a clear link to the changes expected of Kyiv. EU assistance has so far only been indirectly tied to reform.  

Given that Ukraine is a country fighting a war of national survival, it is not surprising that most assistance has been directed to ad-hoc needs. But reducing the use of economic aid just to wartime requirements would be an unhelpful approach for a country eyeing EU accession. The report’s main recommendation is that assistance should be an integral part of wider EU policy toward Ukraine.  

A realistic accession roadmap should be created, based on a shared vision of post-war Ukraine as a future member of the EU. To make sure that the assistance is used efficiently, Brussels would have to do more to improve Ukraine’s absorption capacity, and that can only be done with “stronger participation of local-level governance and other actors . . . where those managing the aid are closer to the recipients,” the report says.  

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The engagement of local governments and civil society in making the decisions on how funds are to be allocated should be greater, the authors argue.  

Another view, this time from Finland, looks at EU enlargement from a wider angle but comes to remarkably similar conclusions. In a paper for the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Tyyne Karjalainen examines three dimensions of EU enlargement – geopolitics, state-building, and the EU’s internal development.  

She concludes that Europe faces three possible scenarios: an increasingly contested neighborhood if enlargement fails, the EU in a state of stalemate, or a successfully enlarged bloc. To avoid the first two and ensure success, Karjalainen says locally driven, rigorous, and completed reforms are key. 

The impetus for the current revival of enthusiasm for enlargement was provided by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine when the EU chose enlargement as a credible response to the war. As economic and political cooperation with Russia diminished, neighborhood-first approaches replaced it in EU capitals.  

Yet this new approach, Karjalainen writes, is not irreversible: “The withdrawal of Russia from Ukraine or a compromise result to the war could lead to at least some EU members rediscovering trade opportunities with Russia,” she writes. “If risks are not managed better this time, it could hinder the member state-building agenda in the accession states.” 

Karjalainen suggests that requirements to reform, inherent in the EU accession process, are a form of state-building for candidate countries, except they are constructed specifically to fit EU criteria. Participation of local societies can ensure this leads to genuinely stronger and more efficient institutions, she says.  

Despite all the downsides of externally conditioned state-building, accession can and should be treated by both the EU and the candidate governments as a transformation process for state institutions, making sure no democratic backsliding occurs as soon as accession is completed.  

There is one crucial condition for this result to be achieved: “The EU should take a back seat as far as possible, and the drivers of change must come from within the candidate countries,” Karjalainen says. 

It is largely up to EU member states and the European Commission to make sure these recommendations are not overlooked when constructing accession roadmaps for new candidates. Enlargement will not be successful if it is treated as “business as usual.” 

Marija Golubeva is a Distinguished Fellow with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). She was a Member of the Latvian Parliament (2018-2022) and was Minister of the Interior from 2021-2022. A public policy expert, she has worked for ICF, a consultancy company in Brussels, and as an independent consultant for European institutions in the Western Balkans and Central Asia.   

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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